Autonomous ≠ Unmanned

How the maritime industry can invent its own path in the autonomous space

This simple equation is a key driver of our work at Shone. We believe that humans are extremely valuable and talented. That’s the reason why we care a lot about providing the crews with great technology that makes their lives easier and helps them accomplish more. And to do so, we need to debunk the autonomous = unmanned fallacy.

Actually we believe in this so much that we made this the main message of our website’s landing page.

Shone’s landing page

To understand why we put this message so front and center, we need to take a step back.

The push for manned autonomous ships

When we started Shone, Antoine was working on autonomous drones for wind turbine repair at Camp Six Labs, Ugo was working on HD maps for self-driving cars at Mapbox, and I was implementing human-like behaviors for driverless trucks at Starsky Robotics. What we were seeing was that a lot of the very hard problems in the autonomous space stem from the fact that making a system that behaves perfectly 100% of the time is hard, very hard (I’m not the one saying this, Waymo’s Director of Engineering is).

And that’s why for instance Starsky Robotics uses teleoperation to drive the trucks in complex urban environments, while on the highway the trucks can drive themselves. Others wish to have human drivers bring the trucks from the warehouse to the highway, and from the highway to the warehouse at the other end of the trip.

But the unfortunate results of all these developments is that the words autonomous and unmanned have become synonymous to many. One of the main reasons is that ground vehicles are usually operated by a single person whose main job is to steer the vehicle. Therefore, autonomous systems that can drive literally make those vehicles unmanned (apart, of course, from passenger vehicles!). There are however major differences between these two concepts:

Autonomous: acting independently or having the freedom to do so.
Unmanned: without the physical presence of people in control.

The particularity of shipping

An obvious yet important point is that ships are completely different from trucks or cars. A ship usually is operated by a crew of about 20 to 25 people. Out of those, 3 officers are in charge of standing watch for two 4-hour blocks every day. The rest of the crew handles the engine room, general maintenance of the ship, safe lashing of the cargo, etc.

During a watch, the officer makes sure that she is aware of the ship’s current navigation plan and takes appropriate actions to follow this plan, verifies instruments regularly and performs a constant visual look-out (basically visual checks of the ship’s environment and comparison of this visual input to what the instruments show).

The officers of the watch also perform crucial tasks unrelated to navigation — the Chief Officer is in charge of cargo operations, the Second Officer handles the navigation plan and navigational equipment and the Third Officer ensures that all safety equipments are in proper condition. Additionally they are required to prepare port calls, log information about the ship’s route and status regularly.

“Hours and days of boredom separated by seconds of sheer terror”

During a regular ocean passage, this means that the officers of the watch are expected to be fully focused eight hours a day while, most of the time, nothing is happening. A seafarer I interviewed recently described his job as a watch-stander as “hours and days of boredom separated by seconds of sheer terror”.

Unlike in a car or a truck, a ship’s “driver” is not permanently adjusting steering or gas. Instead they permanently monitor the environment and sometimes take appropriate actions to modify the ship’s trajectory.

What stood out to us was that the officers of the watch could focus on much higher value tasks (or rest) while nothing is happening. This would make them much more efficient and reduce accidents dramatically (more on this in a future blog post!). And this is what we foresaw to be the way forward for the maritime industry.

Countering the unmanned doxa

At the time we decided to start the company (summer 2017), the big players were only talking about unmanned ships.

They did not seem to realize that the main value for the industry would actually come from autonomous, manned ships.

See a selection of headlines (on the left) from mid 2017 to realize how the conversation was stuck in a manned vs unmanned dichotomy, pushed by the major equipment makers.

Pushing for our vision and bringing to the industry this idea that manned and autonomous were not antonyms was one of the main reasons that led us to start the company. Since then we have been continuously sharing that message in our presentations with customers, at events and conferences.

Left: our display at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium in Amsterdam (June 2018) — Right: panel at ShippingInsight (October 2018)

The good news is that this message resonates extremely well with the industry stakeholders. Shipowners and operators know the complexity of operating ships and they are far more interested in pragmatic solutions to reduce accidents and improve operational efficiency rather than promises of unmanned vessels not backed up by factual evidence of safety and reliability.


If you’re interested in hearing more about what we do and/or in helping us build the future of shipping, please hit me up (clement@shone.com)!